Is Philippines offering Beijing an olive branch over South China Sea?

Manila will push for code of conduct to govern disputed waters at upcoming Asean summit, Philippines foreign minister says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 10:11am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:40pm

The Philippines will seek to manage tensions over the disputed South China Sea at the upcoming Asean summit, after years of tough rhetoric with Beijing over the issue.

The nation’s acting Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo told the South China Morning Post that the maritime disputes would be raised during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila from Wednesday to Saturday, and in later meetings of the 10-member bloc, but that these discussions would not affect ties between China and the Philippines.

After suggesting that a moderate tone would be taken over the Sino-Philippine maritime disputes at the upcoming Asean summit, Manalo said Manila, as the rotating chair of the bloc, would focus on crafting a framework for a code of conduct to contain maritime tensions, which he expected to be completed next month.

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“We will try stressing the importance of promoting or at least managing tensions and disputes peacefully and through diplomatic means,” he said.

“We acknowledge that differences exist, but that does not mean the whole relationship should be affected by that, because we also have good economic relationships and people to people exchanges,” Manalo said.

A new bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea between the two nations would be launched in May, with the first meeting to be held in Beijing, Manalo said.

“They will be dealing with technical issues, but on a political high-level, a meeting between national leaders. It’s a very good opportunity for us and China to raise issues. We can now talk face to face in an atmosphere that we can solve differences peacefully,” the minister said. “The mechanism is partly one attempt to see how we can now talk about this difference [on the South China Sea].”

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Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and has constructed islands that can house military facilities, raising fears among its neighbours that China may threaten them with military might. Recent patrols by China’s coastguard at the Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia have been seen as a signal that Beijing plans to pursue its claims in the disputed waters.

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The Asean summits have been dominated by tensions over the South China Sea in recent years. Beijing had previously accused the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, of raising the issue at the summits and siding with Washington to target China.

The relationship between Manila and Beijing soured further after the Philippines took the maritime disputes to an international tribunal in The Hague, which ruled last July that China’s claims to the South China Sea were invalid. Beijing said it would disregard the ruling.

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But Duterte made a high-profile state visit to China in October, which resulted in a series of trade deals and a resumption of senior bilateral dialogues.

However, maritime tensions between the two nations might flare up again, said Aileen Baviera, an Asian affairs analyst from the University of Philippines in Manila.

“What Duterte’s government has done is engage China in bilateral dialogues and consultations, which helped improve the political environment and atmosphere. But he has not set aside the ruling permanently,” Baviera said.